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Saturday, 24 March 2018

Is the 21st century a promising age for autocrats?

Last year we had the 19th party congress rubber-stamping decisions already made about China’s leadership behind closed doors, and this year we have Putin’s “reelection” in a rigged popularity contest where the only viable contender was forbidden by corrupt justices from running. There were staged elections in Egypt. Cambodia’s Hun Sen, in power for the past 40 years, visited Sydney for an ASEAN meeting. In late December and early January there were widespread protests in Iran over official corruption. The only place that has been quiet has been Thailand, where the generals are still in power having ousted the elected prime minister in 2014. Yes, it was that long ago and still no elections there. I’ll have a pad see ew, thanks.

China and Russia are making it easier for petty autocrats like Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and General Prayut Chan-o-cha to take and keep power. And the resurgent prevalence of autocracy is being driven by resentment. There is a French term for it: “revanchism”. The term dates from the inter-war years when the German people were mobilised by the Nazis through a democratic process they ultimately dismantled to seek revenge on the allied powers following the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, which formed the full-stop to WWI. In China and in Russia the people are powering resurgent nationalism in order that their countries can lay claim to what they see as their deserved places in the world.

You might say that something similar is happening in the US, but at least there Trump has a limited tenure, although an Australian I know who lives in the US and has done for 40 years, worries about Trump resorting in the end to dictatorship.

China justifies its power grab by claiming that Western standards in the province of human rights are alien to its culture, but the fact is that they are happy to take advantage of everything else that Europe has offered up that is constructive and meaningful, such as technology and science. Even though these things derived from the same Humanist push that resulted in the emergence of representative democracy.

In the beginning, there was no boundary separating the ideals of the researcher in the physical sciences and the struggle for individual fiat. The desire for accurate translations of the Bible from its constituent originary languages into local vernaculars combined with the rediscovery of the classics of Rome to fuel scholarship in northern Europe. The popular journals that published treatises describing new scientific discoveries for the benefit of the broader populace also critiqued imaginative fictions describing injustices righted by sublunary heroes. The men who voted for local representatives in Parliament also ran the companies that converted scientific discoveries into useful technologies. The children of those men formed communities of opinion that helped to dislodge oppressive laws from the statutes.

An ironic twist in this derives of course from the fact that the powerhouse of the Enlightenment project, the Protestant middle classes, were manifestly sustained by revanchism in their personal and professional lives. They were naturally Christians and so relied on a religion founded on a fantasy of revenge over an injustice ultimately corrected through the so-called Ascension. Being Protestants, they were doubly motivated by revanchist sentiment because their breakaway churches were founded on the back of claims of corruption within the preeminent church of Catholicism.

The working classes as well were furthermore motivated to support the leadership in countries like England through the use of othering. Although their wages barely kept them alive and infant mortality was a crushing weight on morale because of disease resulting from poor access to clean drinking water, the men of England freely gave their allegiance to an unbroken line of kings and queens and patriotically lost life and limb in war after war waged against the hated French, and for novelty the hated Dutch. The way that popular culture of the time painted national heroes in hues deeply coloured by nationalistic exceptionalism is a template for how popular sentiment in China is manufactured by the Communist Party at will against the Japanese, for example, or against the Americans in Iran by the mullahs.

You can see where this is all heading. Here are aspects of European history that the leaders of China and Russia can positively embrace because they ideally fit their narratives. They say that the West has for too long humiliated their national pride and it is time to rebalance the ledger, and exact exemplary punishment. So hail to the chief!

Traditional narratives of revenge are easy to come by in any number of secular books in any case – take the fairytale Cinderella for example – and so even though they might profess unease about accusations of autocracy levelled at Putin and Xi the people in those countries still accede to the temptation to come out into the streets to support them. The 21st century promises a rocky ride unless the Russians and the Chinese can be tempted to alter the narrative and force their leaders to surrender temporal power to the demos.

Just as a coda to this little essay, it struck me the other night when thinking about this post that Francesco Petrarca, who launched the Renaissance by writing Italian-language love poetry and reintroducing the letters of Cicero to the popular imagination, had relocated his household to the south of France where he heard the French songs of the troubadours. So the Enlightenment project, from which stems everything that we prize, was begun by an immigrant.

1 comment:

Matt Moore said...

So the short answer to your title question is: Yes.

China shows no signs of becoming a democratic state - i.e. a state where the Party would voluntarily surrender power to someone else. In fact, it will deploy surveillance technologies against its own population to a far greater extent than War-on-Terror fixated Western states. And as economic growth inevitably slows, the Party will tap into toxic racist and nationalist movements in Han China to legitimate itself. It will seek to control its sphere of influence through the One Belt, One Road initiative and its artificial islands in the South China Sea - and soft power interventions in states like Australia.

As for Russia, it is a second-tier country run by a kleptocrat with a penchant and capability for risk-taking and mischief - funded by mineral wealth. It is likely to eventually provoke an armed conflict with a NATO state.

I would agree with Yascha Mounk that populist authoritarianism in Western democracies is driven by economic and racial anxiety that can be harnessed as resentment against the other (e.g. liberal elites, immigrants). This will only get worse.

Cheerful stuff I'm sure you'll agree.